Why we need to hear the stories of trafficking survivors.

It almost goes without saying that the most interesting and informative parts of the many discussions on human trafficking are the actual stories and experiences of the people themselves, particularly the victims and survivors of what is arguably the most heinous act one can imagine.  But where are their stories?


Unfortunately, the voices of victims and survivors are missing in most reports and publications on human trafficking.  We only get a hint of them in the bite-sized quotes and narrative snippets found here and there in discussions that are otherwise dominated by policy or analysis of the “measurable data.”  Yet even these small samples stand out and grab one’s attention by providing a small window onto the lives and experiences of actual people.  But who are these people and what are their full stories?  Beyond brief but enticing glimpses, we really do not know.   The people – their voices, their stories, and their experiences – are missing.  They have become non-entities in the pursuit of “evidence-based data” and an overall paradigm that is clearly biased towards statistical aggregation, “objective data,” and the discussions and perspectives of a host of “experts.”  Why do we treat the victims of modern day slavery in this manner when, like other acts or historical events involving profound social violence and suffering – such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, or life under Apartheid rule – we recognize the fundamental need to allow victims to speak?  The UN even goes so far as to disparage the experiential aspect of human trafficking as “journalistic writing,” shrugging it off to the margins of significance in their annual reports, a dismissal that seems to have set an unfortunate precedent for most writings on the topic.


Like any form of mass violence and assault on human dignity, modern day slavery is an act that requires us to seek out the stories and experiences of those who suffered, survived, resisted, and endured.  Their voices are a fundamental part of the healing process itself, for both the individuals involved as well as for our collective humanity.  Reducing those voices to a collection of aggregated data or dismissing them in favor of lengthy diatribes from experts, ideologues, or legislators is in certain ways as misguided and disturbing as any act of historical denial involving the Holocaust or Rwandan Genocide.  Social suffering requires acts of social healing and reparation, which are themselves based on the individual voices and memories of those who were victimized. We commit further acts of violence and injustice by denying them their voice.


The dominant U.N.-based approach to human trafficking reduces its complexity, including not only the individual experiences involved but their wider, structural determinants.  The few thoughtful and more in-depth approaches to human trafficking that do exist clearly demonstrate how the experience of being trafficked entails complicated decision-making processes, varying external pressures, shifting lines of power and authority, and a wide range of meanings involving how individuals view themselves and their situation at any given point in time.  At the very least, such social phenomenon need to be considered.  More often than not, however, they are reduced to simple debates as to whether or not a person meets the criteria for a specific definition of trafficking, as if that individual existed in some kind of timeless, immutable category (of course, such categories are more easily counted and aggregated).  But the ambiguities and realities of experience do not easily transform into a statistic.  We know this from our own lives, so why should we assume that being trafficked suddenly reduces individuals to one-dimensional beings? If we are to understand modern day slavery, we have to do so as a wide-ranging set of experiences that change over time.  Undoubtedly there are patterns to these experiences, but we must take particular care how quickly and cavalierly we define them.


All of these issues relate to questions of risk and vulnerability and, specifically, how individuals are classified as “at risk” for being trafficked.   High-risk individuals are often classified as such because they fit a specific profile based on gender, age, or ethnicity (for example, younger San women and girls in Namibia).  In and of itself, however, this tells us very little about exactly why they are at risk. For example, what are the general conditions that put a person at risk for being trafficked?  How did those conditions come about in the first place?  And how will those conditions continue to play out in the future?  When we look at risk as a set of historically situated conditions rather than as a rubber-stamped category we begin to focus on the structural determinants that shape lives and make individuals more or less vulnerable at any given time.  Structural determinants point to such things as the political-economy of a specific region, the social relationships that individuals form, and the cultural meanings that define those relationships. We can also examine how structural forces interact with individual experience and household dynamics in a manner that defines risk.  Risk might slowly accumulate over a person’s life rather than descend upon her in a sudden and all-encompassing manner, which is what many discussions of a person’s risk status imply.  In fact, most “high risk” individuals for everything from trafficking to HIV/AIDS and drug abuse are unwittingly stamped with such an ignoble status simply by being born.  It seems much more informative to assume that the dialogue between structural determinants and local experience shapes and influences a person’s life in a manner that determines their degree of risk for trafficking at any given time.  Once again, this assumes a more complicated picture of trafficking than most discussions currently allow for.  It demands a closer look at individual lives and their stories.


In the end, this essential need to examine lived experience in a more in-depth and comprehensive manner avoids much of the divisiveness inherent to current debates on human trafficking.  Moreover, it does not threaten or exclude the number counters and those who insist that the only good evidence is statistical evidence.  They will continue to count.  They always do.  And they will probably always be the majority.  At the very least, it supplements and enhances those long lists of numbers by seeking out the voices and stories of real people – freely and willingly told – in a manner that sheds light on an act of such unparalleled cruelty and inhumanity that to leave those voices out is itself a contributory and shameful act of denial.  Until then, we will continue to be left with a shockingly incomplete picture of modern day slavery around the world, one that obscures the voices of individuals and fails to lay bare the inner world of human trafficking itself.

Tupa’s story of abduction, resistance, and escape provides the kind of detail that is missing in most accounts of modern day slavery, particularly when it comes to Africa.  It sheds light on one of the darkest failings of humanity – including the unseen and monstrous forces behind it – in a manner that all the numbers, official reports, and talking heads cannot possibly convey.  Her experience not only exposes the daily brutalities and routine sufferings of being a modern day slave, but it also highlights the structural processes and historical determinants that put her at risk in the first place.


After reading Tupa’s story, one cannot doubt that  a new Middle Passage exists in Africa, one that involves the abduction of humans – primarily women and children – who are shipped via extensive, well-coordinated transportation networks to destinations where they live and work in bondage.  As slaves, they are bought, sold, branded, beaten, starved, raped, murdered, and even chopped up for parts.  It is a world where “special orders” are made, individuals are thrown in the backs of trucks with livestock and other goods, and dealers inspect and market human bodies like the slave auctions of old.  At times, it exists in brutal, literal form while at others it is more ambiguous and fluid as it fuses and overlaps with the ebb and flow of transnational labor and the global economy. And despite all of this, it continues to operate in the shadows.